by Ross Nickerson
That is important first question for those of you are itching to take up the fun of playing 5 string bluegrass banjo. In my years of teaching the banjo and also handling much of the customer service at BanjoTeacher.com, the question “Is learning banjo hard?” or “how hard is it to play the banjo” is one that comes up a lot and often first!
It’s an understandable question but it still almost always takes me by surprise. I don’t normally have trouble answering the question but it has to be answered in more than one sentence though, well unless you are willing to drop a one liner remark on a vulnerable and unsuspecting aspiring banjo picker which I make a point to never do.
It’s not hard to learn the basics rather quickly and even play a song within a month. I think what separates the newbies and the pros is the relaxed way experienced players deliver the banjo music with good timing, good tone, proper technique and at faster tempos.
It’s safe to say that learning to play the banjo is much more of a physical challenge then a mental one. It takes lots of repetitions and physical exercise to build up the skills needed to play the 5 string banjo. One of the beauties of the three finger Scruggs’ style technique is in its simplicity. It delivers simple solid rhythmic music in a straight forward way. This not only makes it pleasant easy to hear musically but the technique also makes sense to learn.
Some of the puzzles of learning banjo can be solved with the mind but most of it has to be solved with developing the ability to physically get control of the instrument. Some sports analogies come to mind. For instance it is easy to learn to do a “push up” but hard to do 100 of them. That takes exercise, conditioning and some commitment. Another analogy to learning to play banjo could be with learning and improving at the game of Golf. Golf practice could be described as working on different aspects of your game, putting, driving, short game, chipping etc. With banjo practice, it may be picking practice, fretting hand flexibility exercises, developing muscle memory with repetitions and so on. Then the analogy could be drawn that playing a round of golf brings together all the elements you’ve developed in practice. The same comparison could be drawn that executing a song on the banjo brings together the skills you’ve developed focusing on different areas of importance while practicing your banjo.
“Muscle memory” when playing a musical instrument is much more powerful and useful then remembering things with your mind. Your mind can only store so much information to be pulled up quickly and relayed to your fingers in a split second but muscle memory amazingly lasts and lasts. With a little refreshing my fingers still remember songs that I played over twenty years ago.
The main job at hand is learning some basic techniques and repeating them till they are firmly in your muscle memory and become second nature. If you find you get hooked on practicing and cannot put the banjo down, I can almost guarantee success. Most students as they take up the banjo develop a physical sensation picking the strings and can’t wait till they pick up the banjo again to play and practice.
The business of going about practicing or knowing what to practice does not always come clear to students. There is a DVD called How to Practice Banjo which is geared towards beginners, advanced beginners and newer intermediate players struggling and want to reach the next step. Details
Here are a few common questions and answers on how difficult it may be to learn the banjo.
Am I too old?
Of course not, and what is the definition of old anyway. I had a call from a student starting at 83 so chances are you have a large head start in comparison. Everyone wishes they started younger but as it turns most people have time to learn an instrument in two phases of their lives. First is when they are younger and have more free time and less responsibility. The second being when you are older and have created a life for yourself and now have the time and desire to take on something new.
Is banjo harder to learn than the guitar?
Certainly not harder! Some things about the banjo could be considered easier; the strings are lighter gauge than a guitar and easier to push down. It does not take long to master a few simple things on both instruments. To play in a bluegrass band with a banjo may take more practice than playing only rhythm guitar in a bluegrass band if the guitar player is simply strumming chords. If the guitar player takes on soloing it will take every bit as much practice and likely more. The banjo player has some advantages using three fingers as opposed to just one flat pick a guitar player uses when playing bluegrass music.
What’s a good banjo to start with?
It’s important that the banjo is stable and stays in tune. Tuning a banjo or keeping a banjo in tune is not as easy as tuning a guitar so you don’t want to start two steps back with a banjo that does not stay in tune well.
The banjo should have good “action”, action meaning the strings are not too high up over the fret board, or too low which causes the strings to buzz. This can be adjusted in a few different ways but if it’s a used banjo it could indicate problems with the neck, warping or a cracked rim. It’s important to start with a good instrument. Expect to pay 350 to 650 for a new beginner banjo that will serve you right. It’s worth it to get a good one to learn on, it will help your progress or maybe better put, a bad one will slow your progress!
Should I use Book or DVD?
Both are excellent, I would not personally recommend a book to learn from if it does not have at least a CD or a DVD, and both are preferable these days. I have written a lot of books and would not dream of putting one out without either audio or video demonstrations of the lessons at slow, medium and faster tempos. This beginning banjo book is very comprehensive and includes two CDs and a high quality thorough DVD.Beginning banjo book
Do I need to learn how to read music to learn the banjo?
No, there is very little “written music” for banjo. Anything that is written down for banjo is 99% of the time in something call tablature. Tablature is a very easy to read number system that works great for banjo. Because of the lack of sustain on a banjo you are only using 1/4 notes and 1/8th notes making it even more unnecessary for written music and even easier to use tablature instead.
Most of all I encourage you to give it a try. There is nothing to lose and much enjoyment to be gained. There are lots of lessons and support out there for you as you are learning and the banjo community is a big one with lots of very nice people from all walks of life and age groups.
Thanks, Ross Nickerson